Helping a Loved One With a Mental Illness

Dealing with a mental illness can be tough. Learning to accept it as a part of your life can be a struggle, and sometimes it seems like a constant uphill battle. But something that makes it that little bit easier, is having friends and family who try to understand, and do everything in their power to help you feel better. While it can be hard to fully understand what your loved one is going through when you’re not going through it yourself, there are lots of things you can do to aid their recovery. It’s the little things that count, and here are some simple tips that could make a huge difference.

Accept that they have an illness. Don’t patronise them by telling them “it’s just a phase” or that they’ll “get over it”, especially after they’ve had a medical professional diagnose them with a mental illness. While you may have thought it was nothing before, you now have proof that there really is something wrong, and all you can do now is accept it. More often than not, people are afraid to talk about their mental illness for fear of rejection from their friends and family. Show them that not everybody is like that, be that person that they can trust and confide in. They know that if they had a physical illness, acceptance wouldn’t be a problem, but show them that you’ll accept them no matter what the problem is.

Research and educate yourself on the illness. Whether it’s something more common like depression, or something you’re less familiar with like borderline personality disorder, make it your aim to learn about the illness. When a person is first diagnosed with an illness, it can be tiring and stressful telling people the same thing and answering the same questions over and over again. If you show that you have an understanding of an illness, it will make it easier for your loved one to open up to you. For example, if they’ve just been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and are having panic attacks, all it takes is for you to ask “And what happens when you’re having a panic attack? I read that they can cause shortness of breath and shaking” for the sufferer to think, “Yes! Somebody understands!” It might seem small, but it’s one less thing for them to explain to you. Knowing that you’ve made an effort to learn about the illness will help them to open up to you more.

Ask how you can help. Instead of just presuming that you know what to do from whatever research you’ve done, ask them if there’s any way that you can help. Of course you can incorporate what you’ve learned into this, but there might be something more specific and personal that helps your loved one out. After all, everyone is unique and we all deal with things differently. Just a simple text saying, “You looked a little down today. Is there anything I could do to help?” is showing them that you’re aware of what they’re going through and that you care.

Listen to them. Sometimes when your mental illness, whatever it is, has taken its toll on you and you’re having a bad day, all you need is somebody to talk to. What your loved one needs right now is a listener, not somebody who’ll butt in every five minutes with “Yeah that happened to me before but…” or “It’ll be fine as long as you…” Your friend or family member is in a state of distress, and you can’t be of any help to them unless you hear the full extent of how they’re feeling. Let them get everything off their chest, and then you can offer them your advice.mh6

Encourage them to try new treatment methods. Getting better can be a very slow and gradual process, and from herbal remedies to hypnotherapy it can all seem a bit much. If the medication they’re on isn’t working, encourage them to go back to their doctor to see if they can switch it up. Different medication works for different peo
ple, and sometimes it can take a while to find the one that’s best suited to you. Don’t let them give up, and keep reminding them that they will eventually find something that makes them feel better.

If you know someone with a mental illness, then I really hope this post has helped you see how you can help. If you have a mental illness yourself and your friends and family are struggling to understand, show them this. Whether you plonk the laptop in front of them on the kitchen table or just send them a link on Facebook, the chances are they’ll read it, and hopefully learn a thing or two.

Choose your words wisely. If you want to be a good friend, don’t say things like “cheer up” or “there’s people out there who have it worse”. Chances are, your loved one has heard this all a million times before, but does it help? No. If anything, saying something like this to a person with a mental illness will drive them further and further away from you, it will be clear to them that you don’t understand what they’re going through.

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Dropping Out – When Mental Illness Becomes Too Much

A couple of weeks ago, the results of the National Student Survey were published, and there was one statistic that really stood out to me. Out of the 41.7% of students surveyed who thought about dropping out of college, the top reason for this was mental health concerns. I can’t say that this shocked me, but I thought it was something that needed to be talked about more. More often than not when we hear of somebody dropping out, we can roll our eyes and label them as “lazy”. But 99.9% of the time, this just isn’t the case.mh1

In my second semester of college, I had serious thoughts about dropping out. My anxiety was at an all-time high, to the point where I was barely leaving my bedroom. I’d lost interest in everything, going out was no longer fun and I was struggling to enjoy my lectures the way that I used to. I missed the comfort of my own home and all I wanted to do was go back to Mayo, for my mum to comfort me and remind me that things would be okay. After speaking to a counsellor in UL, I decided I’d take a leave of absence from college. But I was too afraid to say it to my parents, to my friends in college, to my friends back home, and soon the closing date for leave of absence submissions had passed.

mh4I stayed in college, and although it was a very tough semester I managed to get through it. Now my mental health is a lot better, I’m finally enjoying going out again and I’m writing more than ever, plus I can’t wait to go back to Limerick in September. But having experienced the turmoil that comes with making the decision on whether or not to drop out, I know just how hard it can be. Out of the 41.7% of students surveyed, the top reason for thinking about dropping out was mental health concerns. So I spoke to two students, one who dropped out of college, and one who dropped out of school, due to their mental health.

Hannah Murphy is an 18-year-old from Swords, in Co. Dublin. Last year, she started a History course in Trinity College, and ended up dropping out in February, which was ultimately the best decision for her health. Speaking about her mental health, Hannah says that there were concerns from a young age:

“I had a brief history of pyschosomatic illness when I was about ten or eleven, but I had ‘recovered’ fine. Despite being quite extroverted as a kid, it became the opposite at fifteen and I started getting pretty bad anxiety around most social situations, including school.” mh3

Having experienced panic during her leaving cert exams, Hannah didn’t do as well as she thought she would, and felt that this had a huge impact on her mindset going into college. She was disappointed that she didn’t get her dream course, and felt as though she had failed.

Her mental health issues had a huge impact on her college attendance, and Hannah says she skipped at least half of her lectures, sometimes arriving outside the door and backing out at the last minute. She left work until the very last minute, so that she was almost forced to do it. She says that this got even worse by the second semester, adding “By then I really just didn’t care anymore”.

mh2Hannah had contemplated dropping out from the very start, but it took her until February to come to her final decision. With the support of her parents, who knew just how much she was struggling, Hannah decided to leave college for the sake of her mental wellbeing.

Talking about the stigma attached to mental illness, Hannah acknowledges that it’s still there, although it’s now a different type of stigma to before: “I think it’s a case where most people will acknowledge mental illness and sympathize with it, but when actually directly confronted with it from a friend/family member it becomes something they don’t want to really face.”

Hannah isn’t surprised by the statistic from the NSS, and adds that the system kids and teenagers go through right before college isn’t one that breeds mindfulness and self-care very well.

Since dropping out, Hannah says that she’s doing a whole lot better. She’s now being medicated, and is still in therapy but is realising more and more that college wasn’t and still is not for her at the moment. She adds, “I’m not even sure what I want to do, so maybe when I’m a little older and stronger mentally I’ll go back.”

Amy Golden is a 19-year-old from Bonniconlon, Co. Mayo. She attended Gortnor Abbey secondary school, where she dropped out in the September of her leaving cert year due to the toll it was taking on her mental health. mh5

For as long as she can remember, Amy has suffered from depression and has been sent to child psychologists from the age of five. It was triggered again when she was in second year, after the sudden death of somebody she knew, and what continued was a downward spiral for Amy’s mental health. It got to the point where she had to be hospitalised for two months at the end of 2014, after being admitted with self-harm injuries and suicidal thoughts. During her stay, Amy was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Dropping out of school was a difficult decision for Amy, but the mere thought of her leaving cert created stress and led to her self-harming. She reflects back on her final day of school, when she’d hit a breaking point: “The bus had just started, and I could feel this pain in my stomach. I could feel the tears coming, and my arms started to pulse and itch for me to harm myself again. I didn’t take any heed, and when I got to school I went straight to the toilet and bawled my eyes out, and then I self-harmed.”

Although she knew deep down that she needed to drop out, it was hard to come to that final decision. Amy knew it was the best thing she could do for herself, and adds, “if I did stay in school, I would have definitely have been dead By October.”

mh6Like many people who drop out, Amy was petrified about what her friends and family would think, “All I could hear in my head was people saying, ‘She’s only going to go on the dole and do nothing with her life,’ or think that I was a complete waster.” Luckily for Amy, her family were very supportive, and did all they could to learn about her mental illness. However her ordeal also separated the true friends from the fake ones, and many chose not to stick around.

Amy agrees that there’s still a stigma attached to mental illness, and recalls on one particular incident where a family member wasn’t exactly supportive, “I’ve had a family member of mine tell her friends that I was in hospital for a bad tummy bug, because she didn’t want to put up with the ‘shame’ of being related to someone who was ‘mental’.”

Amy feels that there’s nowhere near enough support for students with a mental illness in schools, and says that on a scale of one to ten, she’d give it a three. She adds that a talk about mental health in SPHE for a day or two is not substantial.mh7

Since making the tough but necessary decision to leave school, Amy’s mental health is stable. She’s currently on a high dose of anti-depressants, and sees a clinical psychologist every few months. But it’s still an uphill battle for Amy, who was supposed to receive Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) months ago, which was put on hold when her psychologist went on maternity leave. Her psychologist is the only one in Mayo who specialises in Borderline Personality Disorder, and Amy says the wait has held her back in more ways than one, “I cannot do anything until I start DBT, as it basically gives me life skills, which I need to continue in education or work. There isn’t enough resources for me to even meet someone once a week to speak to while I wait.”

However, Amy recognises that she’s come a long way since September 2014, and adds, “It gets better. Not quickly, but step by step.”

Next time you hear of somebody dropping out of school or college, don’t be so quick to judge. There are many reasons that people leave education early, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t return to it. When you could potentially lose a grant, or even a scholarship, dropping out is no easy decision, but sometimes it’s one that just has to be made. If someone dropped out of college due to a physical illness, there’d be no questions asked. Your mental health is more important than anything, and if you need to take a year out to look after it, then that’s what you need to do.

What It’s Like To Have Borderline Personality Disorder: An Anonymous Story

I’ve decided to compile a series of blog posts on different MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS. As you all know, positive mental health is something that I support 110% and I play an active role in trying to destigmatise these illnesses and help people to understand them more. However, I can’t help but notice that although we’re all working hard to “destigmatise” mental health issues, that some of them are being left out. It seems that only the more popular and talked about illnesses such as depression and anxiety are being discussed, and I don’t like that. Sure, it’s great for me because I suffer from anxiety, but what about the people who suffer from schizophrenia, manic disorder, and all those other illnesses? I feel like people are still afraid of these illnesses, and that’s why I’m going to try my best to have them explained from the point of view of somebody who has experienced the illness themselves. This way it’s humanized, and will be easier for people to understand and in some ways relate to. I want to destigmatise mental health issues, and I want to do it the right way. There is no mental illness that deserves to be left out.

People are becoming more and more aware of mental illness, and yet somehow our knowledge is still limited. Borderline Personality Disorder is a condition which usually stays with you for life. People recover but it’s always a part of you. The illness is quite often confused with depression, anxiety and even bipolar disorder which can make it even more difficult for Borderlines to receive the help that they need. My mental health deteriorated around the age of 12 and it wasn’t until I was almost 16 that I received the diagnosis. This changed everything for me. Everything made sense all of a sudden.

Borderline Personality Disorder mainly affects my mood and my relationships. I can go from absolutely fine to suicidal in the space of a few hours. I am also extremely impulsive. I look back at some of the things that I have done and fail to understand what was going through my head to make me do it. The mixture of anxiety, depression and rapid cycling mood can be so much to deal with.

Borderlines often end up in unstable relationships. These may be romantic relationships or even friendships. Due to this it is hard for us to find people we trust and often get attached when we do find someone. Getting attached to people can be extremely tough for us when it comes to leaving, and can make our mental health deteriorate even more.

I have also spent a while in psychiatric hospitals. This was a blessing and a curse. At times it made me even more depressed and frustrated. I had several diagnoses thrown at me only to find out that it wasn’t that. At times I was so drugged up that I spent the majority of my days in bed.

Medication is only part of the treatment for BPD. Extensive therapy is required and it can take quite a while to build a bond with your therapist especially when you’re scared of getting attached and having to leave.

Many people with BPD are often labelled as ‘attention seeking’ and this is really upsetting, especially when all you want is help from someone. I often get told to ‘just get a grip’ which makes me extremely angry. It’s hard to reach out knowing that you will immediately be put down. Please never criticise someone when they tell you about their problems, regardless of how petty they sound. We all have different definitions of the world ‘problem’ and by telling someone that their issues aren’t important, you could potentially stop them from reaching out and getting appropriate help. In an ideal world, there would be no stigma around mental health and we could all talk openly about it. This would be so beneficial to many people suffering as they would know that it is okay to ask for help.